Refinishing wooden floor; Light vs Dark stains

9 Replies

Or no stain depending on the wood's natural coloring.  This makes repairs much easier since you don't have to match stain coloring.  Often a light sanding followed by whatever top protective (polyurethane) coat was used can fix most scratches.


@Tim Huynh

All right, Tim, historically, this has been a matter of taste to some extent, but also a matter of quality. All the floors that you've shown us here are solid American white or red oak tongue-and-groove, 3/4 in. thick, 2 1/4 in. strip flooring. This is far and away the most common unfinished solid wood flooring sold today.

Historically, really light-colored finishes for this sort of floor didn't exist. The first wood flooring finishes were waxes and varnishes, and then along came shellac, and then oil-based polyurethane. Shellac and oil-based polyurethane gives an amber tint to wood flooring. Over time, the oak naturally ages and gets darker and darker under the finish.

Eventually, waterborne polyurethanes were developed, and those are the light-colored finishes you see in the pictures, preserving the oak's tan tint (even these will darken too, over time). This has changed the game a bit, but old arrangements do persist.

Light finishes are typically chosen to highlight the quality and longevity of the oak strip flooring, that is, to reveal the grain better if it's more expensive quartersawn or rift-sawn planks, the lack of knots in the wood, the long length of the boards. Unfinished oak strip flooring has historically been sold in several grades: Select or Clear (the best, straight grain, minimal or nonexistent knots), #1 Common (obvious, even garish plainsawn-pattern graining, knots,  minor filling), and #2 Common (utility grade).  Finishers tended to use light finishes extensively on Select grade flooring, as you could imagine. The most common arrangement from the post-war years to the 1990s was a dewaxed shellac to seal the wood and then two coats of amber-tinted oil-based polyurethane.

On the other hand, darker finishes would be used to mask inferior grain patterns or extensive knot filling, to disguise cheap planks that had obvious #2 Common characteristics.

So this is where it gets a bit odd -- all four pics you showed us are of Select-grade flooring, some with light finishes, some with dark finishes. I've installed and refinished a lot of oak flooring. Were I to walk into a house and see extensive dark wood stain used on obvious new Select grade oak, I'd casually shrug off the owner as an ignoramus with little understanding or appreciation of honest yet magnificent North American oak as a residential building or finishing material. I am in the minority. Most people wouldn't care. Whatever looks good to you. Whatever matches your furniture. These are the considerations that drive oak floor finishes these days. Maybe it's for the better that the old ways are passing. I would appreciate your contractor, though. He's gently trying to steer you right.

I've been considering about wax recently, and found the the best wood wax website, where they have collected all the options I needed to compare with. I've tried two of them and the best one for my wood floor is Daddy Van’s for sure, cause it's well safe and is a biobased product, which is pretty important.